Sunday, August 20, 2006

Against internment

When British authorities announced that they had foiled a plot to bomb airliners travelling between the UK and US, I said that it would be safe to bet that we would soon see the Blair government standing up and arguing for a further erosion of human rights in the name of "protecting the public from terrorism". Sadly, I was right. According to the Independent, Home Secretary John Reid now wants to suspend the Human Rights Act in order to allow suspected terrorists to be interned - detained indefinitely without trial.

This would of course be a fundamental attack on justice, and on the principle in democratic societies that the government actually needs evidence to imprison someone. It would be handing the terrorists an enormous victory by rolling the legal clock back five hundred years to the days of absolute monarchy, when people could be detained indefinitely at the monarch's (now the Prime Minister's or Home Secretary's) pleasure. It might also be legally ineffective, unless the British government also derogates from the relevant parts of the ECHR or somehow contrives to deny terrorist suspects access to the European Court of Human Rights. But in addition to all of that, to paraphrase Talleyrand, it would not just be wrong - it would also be a mistake. I've argued before that the "war on terror" is a war of ideas, aimed at depriving terrorists of the recruits, funders, and passive supporters they need to function. Injustices such as torture and detention without trial are absolutely counterproductive to this. And the British know it. In 1971, they began interning suspected IRA terrorists. The result was a radicalisation of the Irish Nationalist community, more support for the IRA - and more terrorism. Unless the British government wants to see the same happen with its Muslim population (many of whom already feel unfairly targeted by anti-terrorism measures), then they would be wise to resist Reid's plan and instead focus on gathering evidence and prosecuting terrorists, rather than taking the "easy" path of arbitrary tyranny.


The only reason why they would want detain these guys indefinitely without trial is simple. They never had a case.

None of the alleged terrorists had made a bomb. None had bought a plane ticket. Many did not even have passports, which given the efficiency of the UK Passport Agency would mean they couldn't be a plane bomber for quite some time.

In the absence of bombs and airline tickets, and in many cases passports, it could be pretty difficult to convince a jury beyond reasonable doubt that individuals intended to go through with suicide bombings, whatever rash stuff they may have bragged in internet chat rooms.

What is more, many of those arrested had been under surveillance for over a year - like thousands of other British Muslims. And not just Muslims. Like me. Nothing from that surveillance had indicated the need for early arrests.

Then an interrogation in Pakistan revealed the details of this amazing plot to blow up multiple planes - which, rather extraordinarily, had not turned up in a year of surveillance. Of course, the interrogators of the Pakistani dictator have their ways of making people sing like canaries. As I witnessed in Uzbekistan, you can get the most extraordinary information this way. Trouble is it always tends to give the interrogators all they might want, and more, in a desperate effort to stop or avert torture. What it doesn't give is the truth.

The gentleman being "interrogated" had fled the UK after being wanted for questioning over the murder of his uncle some years ago. That might be felt to cast some doubt on his reliability. It might also be felt that factors other than political ones might be at play within these relationships. Much is also being made of large transfers of money outside the formal economy. Not in fact too unusual in the British Muslim community, but if this activity is criminal, there are many possibilities that have nothing to do with terrorism.

We then have the extraordinary question of Bush and Blair discussing the possible arrests over the weekend. Why? I think the answer to that is plain. Both in desperate domestic political trouble, they longed for "Another 9/11". The intelligence from Pakistan, however dodgy, gave them a new 9/11 they could sell to the media. The media has bought, wholesale, all the rubbish they have been shovelled.

We then have the appalling political propaganda of John Reid, Home Secretary, making a speech warning us all of the dreadful evil threatening us and complaining that "Some people don't get" the need to abandon all our traditional liberties. He then went on, according to his own propaganda machine, to stay up all night and minutely direct the arrests. There could be no clearer evidence that our Police are now just a political tool. Like all the best nasty regimes, the knock on the door came in the middle of the night, at 2.30am. Those arrested included a mother with a six week old baby.

For those who don't know, it is worth introducing Reid. A hardened Stalinist with a long term reputation for personal violence, at Stirling Univeristy he was the Communist Party's "Enforcer", (in days when the Communist Party ran Stirling University Students' Union, which it should not be forgotten was a business with a very substantial cash turnover). Reid was sent to beat up those who deviated from the Party line.

We will now never know if any of those arrested would have gone on to make a bomb or buy a plane ticket. Most of them do not fit the "Loner" profile you would expect - a tiny percentage of suicide bombers have happy marriages and young children. As they were all under surveillance, and certainly would have been on airport watch lists, there could have been little danger in letting them proceed closer to maturity - that is certainly what we would have done with the IRA.

In all of this, the one thing of which I am certain is that the timing is deeply political. This is more propaganda than plot. Of the over one thousand British Muslims arrested under anti-terrorist legislation, only twelve per cent are ever charged with anything. That is simply harrassment of Muslims on an appalling scale. Of those charged, 80% are acquitted. Most of the very few - just over two per cent of arrests - who are convicted, are not convicted of anything to do terrorism, but of some minor offence the Police happened upon while trawling through the wreck of the lives they had shattered.

Be sceptical. Be very, very sceptical.

Posted by Anonymous : 8/20/2006 08:57:00 PM

Any country hit by a major terrorist attack (by major I am thinking somewhat bigger than sept 11) will "loose the plot". If their democracy survives it will only do so by "pulling an Olmert/Bush".

Many people would say such an event is more or less inevitable.

Of course that doesnt mean they have to loose it before that happens. But Id suggest in that sort of situation there is a solid democratic majority for "an eye and a couple of arms for an eye" over "maintain systems of justice".

Posted by Genius : 8/21/2006 06:53:00 AM

Genius: that's a somewhat dim view - and one not supported by the historical evidence. Democracies have survived even total war and far larger casualties than a September 11th-style attack - despite total mobilization in WWII, the US continued to hold elections as usual, and while the UK delayed theirs in both WWI and II, it was never in doubt (despite the Somme and the blitz). The only reason democracy will disappear in the face of terrorism is if our leaders make a conscious decision to destroy it.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 8/21/2006 08:18:00 AM

The alleged wannabe terrorists couldn't have succeeded in their plot if they'd tried:
None of the fuxx over this "plot" is even remotely justified.

Posted by Commie Mutant Traitor : 8/21/2006 10:27:00 AM